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Some Sussex businesses still waiting for ‘digital divide’ to close

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Smith’s Used Cars in Georgetown is not far from U.S. 9, the east/west road that runs close to their business, but it’s still without broadband technology. // Photo by Brian Harvath

by Kim Hoey
Special to Delaware Business Times

Every time Darlene Smith, owner of Smith’s Used Cars in Georgetown, wants to run a credit check on a customer, she has to plug her computer into her cell phone and use her data plan. Going over her data allowance by “just a little bit” means high overage costs.

“We’re not that far off from [U.S.] 9,” said Smith, of the large east/west road that runs about a mile north of her business.  She tried satellite connectivity, but that just never worked out. Now to cut costs, Smith sends customers to the bank for financing as much as possible.

Farther west in the county, R.C. Willin’s internet access can’t keep up with the need on his 1,400-acre farm. Like most modern farms much of what they do is mechanized and tied in to the internet from tractors, buildings, irrigation systems “¦ just about any structure on the farm. Information must be uploaded and synthesized to create complete pictures of everything from plantings to yields to watering schedules.

Willin’s family actually leased space on one of their grain elevators to a broadband provider in Maryland to give them some access, but it isn’t enough. Still, he concedes, his farm is doing much better compared to some other areas in the county where there isn’t even cell phone service.

“I’ve been working on this for six years,” said Willin, of a University of Delaware group he belongs to that is trying to bring more broadband access to Sussex.

Having reliable internet access is no longer a nice option, it is a necessity for economic growth, said Todd Lawson, Sussex County Administrator.  Practically every business relies on being connected. “What type of infrastructure is in place?” is the first question most businesses ask when considering locating to Sussex County, said Lawson. That infrastructure includes internet access.

For many professionals such as architects, engineers and health-care providers, the Internet access most people have at home is not enough. Large files like MRIs or architectural plans would take too long to send, if they would send at all. For those businesses, broadband high-capacity high-speed access is what is needed.

Getting that access has been a bit of a chicken and egg process in Sussex. The companies won’t move in without the access and the access won’t come without the businesses.

Because of the rural nature of Sussex, and Kent County too, putting in the infrastructure was cost prohibitive for many companies. People like the Smiths were again and again told there just weren’t enough people on their street to make it worthwhile to run a cable. One business in Georgetown was quoted a cost of $40,000 to run a cable connection across the road.  So the state stepped in.

In 2014, Gov. Jack Markell announced that making rural expansion of high-speed broadband was a priority in the state and set aside $2 million for companies that offered plans to use a new fiber line to reach underserved Delawareans.

Sussex County then agreed to be the large “anchor” company to be the starting point for laying broadband infrastructure.  The county officials hired Broad Valley Micro Fiber Networks Inc. out of Reston, Va., to put in a fiber-optic network in Georgetown that was completed earlier this year.

The initial fiber ring is nearly 10 miles around and weaves through the town, passing schools, the library, government, public safety and business locations of Georgetown.

“It’s clear better broadband technology is essential for a community to thrive,” said Gov. Markell at the ribbon cutting for the new system. “We’re grateful Broad Valley is dedicated to improving local community broadband service and helping close the digital divide throughout Delaware.”

With the “ring” in place, Broad Valley built a data center that was receiving finishing touches at the beginning of July. Once the center opened, Broad Valley could offer service to the whole town, said company CEO Peter Aquino.

“This project paves the way for other customers along the route to tap in and utilize the virtually limitless high-speed access that will be made possible with the fiber ring,” said Lawson.

With Georgetown now a technology “island,” the plan to branch out has begun. Broad Valley and other companies are looking at doing similar projects in other towns and cities. When infrastructure is in place there then links can be made between the island networks, eventually linking the county and state together. Last year, the state paid $1 million to put in 36 miles of fiber networks running from Georgetown to Seaford and Georgetown to Lewes.

The Delaware Department of Technology is now looking for a company to connect 211 schools and school administration centers throughout the state. The plan is to start the connection this year in 20 to 40 school increments per year, according to the request for proposal. Who won the bid is schedule to be announced in August.

Darlene Smith is owner of Smith's Used Cars. She said she's begun sending customers to the bank for financing to avoid the overage cost of plugging her computer into her cell phone to run a credit check.

Darlene Smith is owner of Smith’s Used Cars. She said she’s begun sending customers to the bank for financing to avoid the overage cost of plugging her computer into her cell phone to run a credit check.

Still not all homes are going to have fiber networks brought to their doors. Laying fiber, even fiber to connect to a network passing close by, is expensive, said Bill Risse, municipal program manager for Conxx Inc. To connect those people in spread-out rural areas, there needs to be another option. That option might be the air.

Conxx is a wireless technology company that specializes in creating reliable broadband access without wires needing to go to homes and businesses. Using microwave towers and a fusion of wireless and fiber technology, Conxx can provide a service that actually broadcasts to a business or home from a central location. Risse sees this service as the best means for rural areas where population density is sparse. Companies like Smith’s could find this to be their answer.

Using microwave technology can cover large expanses, Risse said. Whether a house is 600 feet or five miles from the tower, makes no difference in cost, he said. Retail providers of the microwave technology generally charge about $40 or $50 a month for high-speed home service. Conxx is working to identify private and public partnership opportunities to build and pay for a tower.

Having everyone connected is going to be key in the future, said Jack Berberian, CEO of SecurenetMD and Delmarva VoIP, Delaware companies that specializes in providing technology services for communication with a specialty in the health-care industry.  He’s been part of Sussex County working groups to help solve the connection problems for years.  He feels like he’s finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

Of course that light is the glow of fiber-optic technology.

“It’s going to bring so many jobs. It’s really doing good things,” said Berberian. “It’s definitely more than talk now.”

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